I will never forget my reaction to the news received while hanging out at Allen and Shackamaxon streets on that warm July evening.
The Vietnam War had taken one of our own Fishtown boys, Charlie Glenn. I can’t remember everyone who was there that night, but I know we were sitting on Be-Bop Brannigan’s step when his mom came out and gave us the news. No one knew what to say. We were all stunned. We sat silent for a few minutes and stared blankly before we eventually realized that the Vietnam War had come home to us and taken one of our own. This was the first time that any of my friends had died, and the shock was great and very hard to accept.
The war had meant little to us until that moment. It had been just a part of the evening news that few of us even watched. Charlie would be coming home, but he would be in a pine box.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps, Charles J. Glenn 3rd was killed by sniper fire in Da Nang, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, on July 7, 1967. He was 20 at the time of his death, and lived on Day Street growing up. He was preparing to announce his engagement the week he was killed.
Fishtown was a very patriotic and tight-knit community when I was young, and it was a great place to grow up. Many of us never saw anything outside of Philadelphia until we either moved away or joined the military. But that was OK; everything we needed was right there.
Living on Richmond Street, all one needed to do was walk down to the corner to Shackamaxon Street and there was a grocery store — Ed’s, and a drug store, Black’s.
There was McCracken’s, a luncheonette, and a bar, The 200 Bar. Within walking distance, there was another luncheonette owned by the Wojciks at Allen and Shackamaxon; there was Kissling’s Sauerkraut (where we would purloin cabbage when the trucks came in) and a gas station to fill up our bike tires — Wolfman’s Esso. We would get our Easter kielbasa at Wyszynski’s, or as we called it, “WW’s”, and our special cakes at Claus’ bakery.
There was a rag and paper factory where we would take our collected newspapers and get 10 cents for a hundred pounds. There was another hangout on Richmond Street — Tillie’s — where we would take soda bottles we had collected to get two cents each for them and either buy baseball cards or use the money for the pinball where we would compete with Tillie’s son, Ronnie.
We would walk to school and church at Immaculate Conception at Front and Allen streets. The kids who went to public school would walk a little further to Chandler School or Penn Treaty High. We got our shoes from Rose at the OK Shoe Store on Girard Avenue. We got our cheesesteaks at Steak Haven. We bought our model cars at Harry’s 5 and 10 and we saved our money at the First Pennsylvania Bank.
We would get together for pickup baseball and basketball games and go up to the Tip-Top or Hetzel’s playground or down to Penn Treaty Park. We would get on a boat at Penn Treaty Park in the summer and spend the day at Soupy Island, where we could swim and have lunch. It doesn’t seem like much, but it was how we spent our days, and we were happy.
It was an innocent time, until the tragedy of losing the first Fishtown resident — and our close friend — to Vietnam in 1967.
As the war escalated, many more of us were drafted or enlisted in the military. Fishtowners did not shirk their duty. Many more of us went to Vietnam in subsequent years. In all, 10 more names were added to the original Cpl. Charles J. Glenn III Memorial, which was built at Marlborough and Wildey streets shortly after Charlie was killed. The memorial was erected in record time, all with private donations. It might have been the first, or one of the first, memorials dedicated to a Vietnam veteran in the United States.
Although Charlie was a year older than me and a year ahead of me in school, he was still a friend. I remember him as a kind and caring individual who always watched out for others. I can truly say that he was an inspiration to me. He has been in my thoughts since his death, but mostly around Memorial Day.
The one thing that bothers me the most about Charlie’s death was what happened on the evening of his wake at the Grant Funeral Home on Girard Avenue. I had planned to go with all of my friends, but at the last minute, I suddenly changed my mind. I was not yet ready to say good-bye to him. I was a bit unsettled about the whole situation. I wanted my last memories of him as a living person and not in a casket, lifeless. That one action does not take away from the memories, and I am now comfortable with the decision I made that night.
Charlie’s memory has helped me in some of my writings. The poem “Away in a Bunker” was written in his memory during the Christmas season in 1997.
I also wrote a passage in a play — Etchings: The Stories Behind the Wall — in which a visitor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall speaks to Charlie and tells him how much his Mom misses him.
“Chuck” is also one the main characters in my novel, Chapter One: The Story of Vic Charles. This work is a fictional account of both my experiences in Vietnam as well as the struggles of adjusting to a normal life while coping with flashbacks to the horrors of war.
Each year, there is a ceremony at the memorial at Wildey and Marlborough streets. For many years, Charlie’s mom, a Gold Star Mother who passed away several years ago, would attend and lay a wreath. The Gold Star Mothers Club was formed after Word War I to honor American mothers who lost sons in war.
Friends, neighbors and family still join the service each Memorial Day to pay tribute to Charlie and the others honored on that monument.
The ceremony is a tribute to those from Fishtown, Port Richmond, and Kensington who gave their lives, and to all of those whose names emblazon the Wall in Washington. The Vietnam War took many fine young river wards men to serve, and failed to return 11 of them. That is a significant number for such a small community. I feel proud to have served and lucky to have returned home unharmed.
Fortunately, although I served in the northern part of the country not far from the “Demilitarized Zone,” or “DMZ,” I was not in harm’s way as often as many others, though any area in Vietnam could be considered hostile.
I recently returned to Vietnam after almost 39 years. The reasons were not to bury any ghosts or demons, but to visit Kim Long Orphanage. Kim Long was a place where my unit would take our dirty laundry to be washed and pressed. I was asked to go on a run one Sunday morning, and the children have captured my heart ever since. Our visits were a respite from what was going on around us. The faces of the children that met us on each visit could have melted a heart. It was a safe haven for a few hours, once or twice a month.
When I finally found that the Kim Long Orphanage (www.st-paul-hue.com) still existed in 2008, I was determined to return. Finding that a nun — Sister Xavier — was still there at 91 years of age was another reason to return. I was fortunate to share the visit with my younger daughter and was glad to have her support as we traveled from Saigon to Hue to Hanoi. I don’t think I could have done it without her.
I have kept in touch with Kim Long since our visit and have collected funds for the orphanage.
Vietnam changed many of us who served. It has affected each of us in a different way. For those valiant 11 souls on the Glenn Memorial, it changed the lives of those who were close to them forever. Let us not forget our 11 “Hometown Heroes”:
Charles J. Glenn III
Harry Seedes III
And let us not forget the over 58,000 others who lost their lives while serving their country in the Vietnam War.
Bob Staranowicz grew up on Richmond Street in Fishtown, and served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. He was deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam from October 1969 to October 1970. Currently, he is a freelance writer and author living in Doylestown, Pa. Growing up, he was best known around the neighborhood as “Stars.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read his poem ‘Away in a Bunker’ by visiting http://thewall-usa.com/literary/bobstara.html.
Information about the Kim Long Orphanage can be found on his blog at http://www.back2vietnam.blogspot.com.